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Analysis From Washington - Peace in Karabakh?

  • Paul Goble



Washington, April 16 (RFE/RL) - The arrest in Moscow last week of the former president of Azerbaijan restarts the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process and may allow for a Rose Garden-style ceremony in the Kremlin during the Clinton-Yeltsin summit this weekend.

But any accord that might be signed by the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan at that time is unlikely to bring peace to that region. Indeed, it may add to the violence there and even spark additional conflicts elsewhere.

That unhappy conclusion reflects both the steps Russian President Boris Yeltsin has taken to push the two parties toward a settlement and the shape of the settlement that he and other interested powers seem to want.

Yeltsin's decision last week to order the arrest of the former president and former defense minister of Azerbaijan, both of whom had been living in Moscow since leaving office, and Yeltsin's implicit offer to extradite the two to Azerbaijan represent an important concession to current Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev.

Fearful that Moscow might use Ayaz Mutalibov against him - a possibility the Russian government occasionally hinted at - Aliyev has long wanted his predecessor to be sent home for trial. Yeltsin's decision now to offer Mutalibov up indicates just how much the Russian president wants a settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh and how he views his relations with CIS states.

Together with the U.S., Yeltsin over the last several months has been putting enormous pressure on both Armenia and Azerbaijan to reach an agreement to end the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

His reasons are hardly unselfish: Yeltsin clearly believes that an accord - and especially one signed during a summit with the U.S. president - would boost his electoral chances at home and improve his image abroad. Moreover and perhaps equally importantly, he has been under increasing pressure from Russian oil companies to take the steps necessary to get the petroleum flowing.

A month ago, the combined efforts of Moscow and Washington in this direction appeared about to bear fruit. But as so often in the past, the possibility of an accord disappeared when Baku refused to accept either loss of de facto control of Nagorno-Karabakh or the presence of significant numbers of Russian peacekeepers.

Neither Yeltsin's calculations nor Azerbaijani concerns have changed in the last few weeks. But Yeltsin apparently has concluded that he has a chance for a deal if Aliyev is mollified by the gift of the head of a major political opponent.

President Aliyev may be willing to go along and even to sign an accord for such a price. But any celebration of such an accord should be tempered by the following considerations:

First, it is far from clear that Aliyev can generate support at home for any such agreement. Many Azerbaijani politicians will oppose precisely the concessions that Moscow is demanding, and they will use all the tools they have to block what many of them would see as the restoration of Russian control over Azerbaijan and the Caucasus.

Second, it is also certain that the introduction of peacekeepers - and whether they are called Russian or blessed as CIS hardly matters - may also backfire. Obviously, if there are 20,000 Russian troops in Azerbaijan and the conflict reignites, many in Moscow would opt for sending more troops rather than pulling them out. In such a case, these forces would not be keeping the peace but rather something much more tangible.

And third, it is extremely likely that both the leaders and the led in other former Soviet republics will be horrified by the spectacle of the Russian president treating the CIS as a club of presidents rather than a commonwealth of states - as he is apparently doing in this case.

In short, Yeltsin's latest effort at peacemaking may have just the opposite effect - even if he gets his hoped for ceremony in the Kremlin.
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